John Lee Hooker, Part II

june 081

John Lee Hooker and the Ra Ra Rolling Stone, Part II

I was 8 blocks from Hooker’s house. I was wedged in between 2 black giants inside a red Cadillac that was being washed by swooshing brushes on all sides. I can still see the swirling soapy circles clouding up everything around us—making us feel safe.

We were crouched down dividing up our cocaine and heroin into 3 rigs and concentrating a great deal. Heavy breathing. There was a negotiation—no one being particularly generous—but then again as it goes, for addicts, we did very well.

“I don’t care about the cocaine. I just need the heroin, guys. Wa wa wait now—I don’t think that’s gonna get me straight now. Ah ah ah. I’ll take that.”

We shuffled various powders into bottle caps—used melted ice from a Burger King cup for the water--and cotton from a cigarette. 3 rigs. We measured.

“Fair?” Said the thinner giant.

“Fair enough.” Said the fatter one.

And I said, “OK—we got a few minutes left. Let’s git this.”

Silence all round. More heavy breathing. The fatter one was really wheezing now.
I placed my arm under my knee and squeezed. Until I could see the vein above my wrist. And then I made the hit—smooth and clean—a little blossoming of blood—and then slowly in.

I waited. Nothing much.

“I knew it,” I said. “I knew I wasn’t gonna feel it. Hell I should’a done the coke!”

The fatter one was silent. His eyes looked wide and dancing-like. But the thinner one looked over at me and said,” Here—I’ll give you a little more. “ And he brought out from his pocket some more powder.

“Where is the water—hand it over! Woops! Dropped the cotton somewhere!”

Silence. Then a shuffle. Then we were back to the negotiation.

I had spent the last 10 hours with these men and we had become rather good friends.

I had been stranded at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in East Palo Alto because the crack head I had tried to score coke from had grabbed my purse and ran off with it. So there I sat. Waiting for a rescue of sorts. Or an angel to call in.

I had called John Lee Hooker. I called the house and his driver/secretary, Kathy, put him on the phone.

“Wha wha wheah you at?” Hooker says.

“John—now don’t get mad. I’m in East Palo Alto. I done lost my purse. Can Kathy come and bring the car—ta to pick me up?”

Long silence.

“John?”

“Ya you gonna have to fa fa find yo way back. East Pa Pa palo Alto! Whatchoo doin’ down theah?”

I heard him mumble … then his voice trailed off. Then the phone went dead and I knew I was sunk.

So there I was. Sitting in the middle of a shrapnel. Every kind of hooligan around and staring at me like I must be some kinda crazy white girl.

Then a big red Cadillac pulls up. And a long thin giant steps up to me and says, “You need a ride? You look like you need a ride.”

At first I said “No.” But he continued to talk. He and his fatter friend were dressed in gym clothes—you know the spandex thing—with stripes going down each side. Sneakers. Ball caps. They were scalpers. They’d been to the game and had made a lot of money and wanted to party.

I finally decided to get into the big red Cadillac. And off we drove to a fancy hotel room high up somewhere.

The thinner one kept up a rap with me about his “girlfriend,” a “most kind and compassionate person.” He said she would be “happy to help me in any way she could.” At some point I saw this “kind and compassionate person.” A tough looking blonde in more spandex.

Somehow during the night of partying with cocaine the “kind and compassionate girlfriend” turned out to be a hooker who had taken the thinner giant’s car and disappeared. At some point at dawn she returned to the hotel. And the thinner giant disappeared into the bedroom with her for about 30 minutes. Then it was back to reality as the sun came up, and I had to get back to John Lee Hooker’s house in Redwood City. Before I got into real trouble.

The car wash was about 8 blocks from Hooker’s house. The two giants got out of the red Cadillac and each one bent down and gave me a hug goodbye. We parted amicably--all of us in our own way liking each other. There is a special kind of respect that addicts have for one another. It’s a “big boy’s game” and only the strong get to play. And you have to be very very good or you won’t last even a week. I guess I was a “big boy” that day.

I walked through the suburban streets. Feeling a little nervous. I was trying to think of what I was going to tell Hooker. I was practicing my story in my head and watching the timed sprinklers go off, one by one, on each identical lawn, shooting pellets of water at me as I passed each neat little boring box that looked just like the other. And I wondered what in the hell Hooker saw in this world—this great man of feeling that could heal the sick with his soul. And here he was in a landscape so dull that it became hellish to walk in. For me.

To my relief when I walked up to Hooker’s door it was quiet and his big black Cadillac was gone. So I sauntered on in and went straight to my room. Hit the bed. And crashed.
……
John Lee Hooker had a granddaughter that liked to come by and cook grits and eggs in the morning. And he would tease her. He was paying for her college education. And she looked like him. And he loved her. And then the mother of all his 8 children—an old lady with bad teeth—fat and bent—nappy gray hair—would come over to cook too. And he would tease her—and he liked her. And he made fun of her and she would smile. They would smile at each other. He would tease her about talking too much and then move his hands together like a duck—opening and closing his fingers together like a beak. And he’d laugh.

Then there were the mean, clean young white women. They hated me. They wouldn’t even look at me. I remember they would always get all dressed up in their stylish jeans and ’80’s cut hair, and they’d want to go to the Pioneer with John, and they’d be all mad when I’d come. Because I could sing. And John was moved by that. And because John talked to me. Alone.

When I’d sing, those mean white women would sit there and turn their faces from me. And if I was at Hooker’s house in the kitchen in the afternoon with Kathy, who I liked, one of them or another would come in to see John, but if they saw me they’d never say a word to me. So I never said a word to them.

And then there was Larry. Larry was a gorgeous black man who could play the bass like nobody’s business and every woman was in love with him. And as it turned out his eyes turned towards me. So one night, me and Larry disappeared into my room “fo awhile” so to speak and we were getting high on cocaine. And other things. And Kathy got real jealous.

Then all hell broke loose at Hooker’s house.

If I came into the kitchen to get something to eat from the fridge, Kathy would start to give me the evil eye. And she’d say, “Damn it, did you eat all the such-and-such. You should at least BUY something!”

But I never had any money to buy food. And If I ate anything I don’t remember.

There was no peace in the barnyard after that night with Larry.

On other afternoons Deacon would come around and hang out with Hooker drinkin’ beers and talkin’ on the phone. And he’d tell me that I had to “keep it together. “ And he’d take me to gigs to sing. And he’d say to Hooker after every gig I sang on “She stole the show!” which I did. Well, if I wasn’t too high.

So another tour came down. Arizona. Next would be Texas.

It was bad enough everybody thinkin’ I was Hooker’s mistress. It was bad enough. But to go home to the place I started out from—and then have that kind’a talk? Well it made me feel sick. And I started to look for a way out. Besides I started to feel more pressure from Deacon.

You see Deacon wasn’t satisfied with the old pretense goin’ on.

He wanted the deal sealed so to speak. And although he never got into my personal business as to who I did sleep with, I could feel him late at night when I couldn’t close my eyes—somewhere in that background of my mind—holdin’ the axe.
I could feel the blade just above the hairs of my neck.

One morning early Roy Rogers came into Hooker’s living room and they were talking. He was hired for this particular tour. Roy was ignoring me like he always did—like I was air. I didn’t care. I always thought he needed less white and more spine when he played anyway. He had the chops, but blues is not only about chops. You need an edge. And to me ol’ Roy didn’t have no edge at all. His wife looked like a baby child. All round-faced like a Vermeer painted doll—and she had a new baby—also round-faced—another baby doll. And he was so damn professional. Always talkin’ to Hooker soft-like and sayin’ how he wanted to hear him play the guitar more and hear those old songs again like “I’m Mad” or “The Flood” instead of the more electric thing. And even though I agreed, I never said much. And then later, of course, Hooker did pick up the guitar, and he and Bonnie Raitt not long after did “I’m in the Mood” acoustic—and it was a big hit. And I always thought it was probably because of Roy Rogers influence on Hooker and how he told him to go back to the deeper stuff. So I have to give Roy that.

Deacon never forgave me for walking away just before that big hit with Bonnie. He thought I could’a had that hit with Hooker. He always shook his head at me like I was just the biggest fool. Threw away my one-way ticket. You bet.

So we did a tour through Arizona and New Mexico. And this time it was rougher—a lot of driving in a big rented Cadillac with the guys behind in a van. So it was Hooker and me and then Roy driving. Then in the van: Kenny Baker, Michael Osborne, Larry, and I can’t think of the drummer’s name. Deacon by then was not allowed on any tours. Hooker loved Deacon—but he didn’t trust Deacon. No tours. And only some gigs. If Deacon did a gig, most of the time it was something he put together.

It was in some little club in Arizona somewhere. I can’t remember the place. It reminded me of a Mexican restaurant anyway. I remember that night I was getting real sick of the weird silences from ol’ Roy and Michael Osborne. And their jealous vibration towards me when I sat with John. And I was thinking to myself that I would not go to Texas. And I was thinking to myself that I wanted to sing “Real Good Thing (Is About to Come to an End)”. And I knew it had ballad-like changes where they would go to the 2 and the 6 but I thought like Hooker did—and he did this all the time—that I would take the words and fit them into a 12 bar blues and make it work for me. And I did.

And not to my surprise Mr. Rogers interpreted it as me not knowing what the hell I was doing. I believe he thought that I didn’t know where the changes belonged in the first place. And maybe he thought it was some kind’a sacrilege to change a song like that. So I sang it. And I felt it. And Hooker liked it. And afterwards, ol’ Osborne and Rogers sat together conspiring at the bar. And not soon after they invited me over to sit with them.

Michael opened the conversation up: “So how long are you gonna be touring with John here?”

“I don’t know.”

“I mean—what’s the deal here?”

Roy just looked into his beer.

“Well John is showing me the ropes. That’s all.”

“Hmm.” Grunted ol’ Osborne.

Silence.

“You goin’ to Texas?”

“I might.”

When Mike Osborne played he never smiled. He stood stiff—like he was scared. Scared of coming outt’a his skin. Maybe feeling something. And Hooker knew it. And I knew it too. You see Hooker didn’t pay real well. Those guys were making $100 a night. Kenny Baker, the sax man, well he was a sweetie-pie and he always talked to me and he told me they got back into town with barely nothing after these tours. And the guys had to share up rooms. Sometimes even 3 to a room. So it wasn’t a real good deal for the players. So Mike Osborne may have been playing with Hooker—but that didn’t mean much.

So after the conversation at the bar, Hooker came over to me and said, “Ca Ca Cathy—the guys—and he motioned his head over to Osborne and Rogers at the bar—wanna know if you would just sing 1 song instead of 2. Na na now it’s up to you. You you you do what you like. An ahl back ya.”

I said nothing for a minute. Then I looked over at those two white boys at the bar and I said “I wanna sing 2. Every night!“ And Hooker smiled and said, “Thaaaat’s ahll right!” And he smiled at me in that funny little boy way with his ragged front tooth showing. That’s when I loved Hooker. Those times.

It was a gritty night. You see I got madder and madder. I got so tired of what people imagined in their minds. I read the menus to Hooker—every night—I told him what the street signs said—every day. I helped him find his medicines. I helped him get ready and dressed. I’d even go get his food late at night from the kitchen. I helped him. I told him how to spell words when he had to autograph something too, words like “Birthday.” And once when we were up late at night talking about his Detroit days and how he worked in a factory and how he got his first big hit I told him I could help him—teach him to read. But John was a very proud man and he just said nothing back at all. And I always treated him with respect when I did these things. And he never pushed himself on me. But he could not have been happy. And here I was sharing a room with him. I started to feel that old blade up against the hair on the back of my neck again.

It was a bigger gig—we were now in New Mexico—hot weather—dry. I had started to drink that night. I was feeling like something inside of me was slipping down. Like there was a notch inside of me that was wrong—that was sliding down into the wrong place so the machine would not work right.

And I got real drunk. So drunk I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My eyes felt like sand was in them. And I remember after the gig I was lying on one of the twin beds in Hooker’s hotel room and Hooker all disappointed with me and lyin’ on the other. And the window was opened and there was still no breeze. And I had my clothes on. And my boots on.

And ol’ Roy Rogers knocks on the door and comes on in. He is carrying a suitcase of money. A suitcase. It was after a big gig—in a big place—opening act and everything. And so a lot of money had been made.

So Roy comes into the room. And as usual he doesn’t even look at me. And he sits down on the edge of the bed and opens up the suitcase. I had never seen so much money in all my life as was in that suitcase.

“You you you counted it all?” John asked.

“Yes.” Said Roy with his typical expressionless face.

Roy said something under his breath I could not make out and turned his head away so I could not see his face.

Hooker laughed.

Then Roy shut the suitcase up. Stood up. And said goodnight to Hooker. He nodded my way and then walked out.

And then the notch slipped down.

When you are an addict there is this thing—it’s like a pressure that builds up. And you can hold it and hold it and hold it. And white knuckle it and be the bravest of brave—for awhile. Until that old notch starts to slip. And once it does. Well. You become free. You can and will do anything required. To get high. You discover strengths you never had. Courage you were never born with. You can do things you never believed would be possible for you to do.

I went into the city to get high like I always did after a tour when I had some money in my pocket. But this time I knew things were different.

I packed up a bag and got a ride from Kathy (we made up) to the train station in Redwood City at high noon. And I had my boots on.

I went to see Brooks Penney. He was my speed connection and an old friend. And I wanted to get high real bad. I had already set things up to meet him in the city. And when I arrived I made a B-line for his brown brick hotel on the corner of Larkin and Geary. That place still stands today—Hotel Heartland. It is the place where Brooks Penney died a decade later. Stabbed to death because he jumped a connection. Blood all over the walls.

Brooks Penney was an unusual man. He loved to hear me sing. He was in love with me and he also understood me. He was an English major who loved to read great books. He was an educated “radical” who had gone to UC Berkeley in the ‘60’s. He had been married and then divorced—he’d had the big house—the great friends—the cook outs on the back porch. And it meant nothing at all to him. Brooks also had a great son about 10 years old at that time—a sweet blonde kid that loved his father so much and would even come to visit him in his ratty hotel room.

I had done everything I could think of to this man. I had robbed him of his computer, I had stolen his money, I had left him waiting for me on the street for hours. But he’d always forgive me. I introduced him to an underworld. The underbelly beast of the Tenderloin. And he was fascinated with it all. To a man like Brooks Penney it was real life.

At first he was holding down his unlikely job as an iron worker. And it was said that he was “so catty” up there on those high beams in the sky. Good at his job--often a foreman. But after a while he started doing a lot of speed and cocaine. And it was I who taught him how to shoot up—yes this is on my conscience. And he went from there. And he fell in with the crowd down there and he never came back up.

Brooks and I would do speed together. And then he would get me off. And he was the best at it of any man I ever met—well almost. And I did not love him. But I was his friend until the end. And when he died I cried bitter tears.
I used to sing to Brooks Penney for 8 hours at a time. And he would listen in rapture. On speed. Both of us sky high. Songs like “Sky’s Cryin” or “You Ain’t Gonna Bother Me No More” or “The Day is Passed and Gone” or “Stones in My Passway.” I would sing him the great deep songs. And that’s what he liked. The sad ones. And then I’d hear the street cleaner machines throttle up their motors just before dawn on the Tenderloin avenues and I knew it was time to sleep. If I could.

So there I was living with Brooks in his one-room hotel room. This time I had been away from Hooker’s 10 days. The longest I had ever been away in many months.
And I got a phone call at Brook’s one afternoon from Deacon Jones.

“Hooker wants you back here. Ya gotta come on back now. He wants to know where you are.”

“Ya?”

“He wants you to go on the Texas tour. To go to Texas with him. Two weeks.”
Silence.

“Deacon, I don’t think I wanna …”

Silence.

“Deacon?”

More silence.

And then he starts shouting, “Are you fucking crazy? Get your but back up here! Don’t blow this! Don’t you understand what he can do for your career?”

“Deacon I can’t. I just can’t do it. I can’t go to Texas or anywhere else.”

And I hung up.

And then I went from speed and cocaine to heroin. It only took me a little while to get strung out since my system was permanently changed. Heroin addiction once you get a habit is like an allergy. Once addicted—and it took me a whole year of using daily—you can’t turn back the genetic clock. If you use a few times in a row, it’s back to a full throttled habit—and within just 3 days that’s what I had.

I didn’t like to kick. I didn’t even like to be in my own skin. Let alone endure a miserable kick.

And so I started turning tricks to make the money.

In my mind it was better. To turn tricks and support my habit and not go to TX with John Lee Hooker and get pushed into being his mistress.

Because I wasn’t really for sale—not my soul. Just my body. And with heroin you can turn the body off like a switch.

I remember one of those first tricks. I had to pay my hotel room bill in one of those “Patels” downtown. “Can you pe? Can you pe mee now?” the Indian hotel keeper women would say? And she would put her hand out like a beggar. And I had to get well. And I could not come up with schemes. I was all schemed out. So I was walking down O’Farrell Street and an older man in his 60’s pulled up. Middle class. Gentle looking—cultivated. He stopped the car—gave me the eye--and I got in. And he took me to his house—where all the pretty gingerbread houses were—on that street –the postcard street. And inside I saw all these artifacts and paintings. And I could see that he was married—because I could see the pictures on the mantle—of a man with a nice enough wife. And I could also see that he was dying of loneliness. And I could see that he was almost shaking after I took my clothes off. And I felt sorry for him. And I made my money. And I left. And that was the beginning of a 3–year stint that at the end almost cost me my life—and in a most brutal fashion.

One late afternoon I was working. I was standing on the corner of O’Farrell and Leavenworth and a beautiful young Mexican man with strong shoulders and a built body walks up to me and smiles. He wants a date to my surprise. I can’t imagine why on earth a handsome young man like him would ever need to buy a woman. But he wanted to, so I took him to the hot tubs on Oak Street. And he was so handsome. Those black eyes. And he was so taken with me that he wanted to go out with me on the town--take me to a Phil Collins concert—that night. And he was willing to pay for my time so I said "Yes."

And I got high first on heroin—and he didn’t mind—he bought it for me. And then we went to the concert. And I remember that at the end he lifted me up on his strong beautiful shoulders--up high--so I could see the stage better—and I felt so light on his shoulders. And he felt so strong.

And we went back to his place—and I had a rule not to ever go to a trick’s place. And I broke it. And we made love in his dark room. And he was a sweet fine young man who wanted to help me. And he kept asking me about what I did and I told him I was a blues singer. And he kept asking me why I was out there on the street like that. He said it didn’t fit. That I didn’t belong out there. And he said I could stay with him and he’d help me to get straight. And so I told him about Hooker and Deacon and the sale of my soul.

And I started to cry. Really cry. And this young man held me in his arms. I was naked in his arms. And I could not stop crying. And I wept for my pitiful life. And I said to him, “I can sing! Damn it! I can really sing. Why couldn’t they have treated me like a person instead of a thing? Why?”

One month later I saw that same young man. I was wearing my short blue jean skirt—black glittering stocking—heels. My pink ironed blouse. Pink lips. Purple eyeliner. Blue eye shadow. The street was glittering now the way October does in a downtown afternoon. If you look out at the street towards the sun, the gems come alive in your eyes. And I was standing on the corner working. And he came up to me and looked at me and looked right through me. And he stood right in front of me and would not go.

And my face was like a rock. And I would not look in his eyes. And I did not acknowledge in any way that I even knew him or that I could even see him standing there next to me. And finally he turned and walked away.

And I stood there on that corner and waited for a trick to come along so I could get my heroin.

But I still had my boots back at my hotel room. And I still didn’t have to go to Texas and be humiliated by those men musicians that thought they were so much better. Better than me and Vala. Better than any woman that wanted to be—a blues singin’ star. Better than the day that they were born.