“Buddy Guy – When I left home”
I was eighteen when I first fell in love. It was at a dingy little record store at Fountain Plaza, on Pantheon Road in Egmore, Madras, back in the mid 80’s, where I paid the then princely sum of 62 rupees for a well-preserved vinyl LP – Eric Clapton’s seminal double album, “Just one night”. All afternoon at home, I listened to the four sides, over and over again. If ‘Blues Power’ touched me for its tinkling piano work, then ‘Tulsa time’ electrified me with its grinding beat; if ‘Further on up the road’ seemed heavenly, then ‘Double Trouble’ was divine. By dinner time, I knew I was in love – with the blues. Over the years, my love deepened, and the spectrum of my affections grew to encompass countless greats: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, and of course, the great English horde whose surnames are enough – Page, Taylor, Green, Beck, Mayall, Clapton…and so many more. Over time I realized some truths: there is no ‘greatest’ – they’re all great!; and, that there is no ‘Top 10’ hit list – nearer a ‘Top 1000’ more like!
But it was not till middle age touched me, that I touched in turn, a clutch of rare names – Mike Bloomfield, Taj Mahal and one Mr. Buddy Guy. If you ask me why I committed such a grave sin for so long, I have no precise answer, save to hang my head and mumble something about the oeuvre of the others having been so large. And that probably is the truth – I took a good twenty years to work my way through radio, cassettes, and LP’s to cover their work. And besides, you would remember if old enough, that in the pre-digital age, music was gold. I have known the truly devoted to trade metal cassettes for reefers, or a quarter of XXX rum. Then, sometime in the late 90’s Napster arrived, and the world changed. I found my wormhole into the universe of my heart, and was an alien no more. Around the same time, that magical other world of the internet gifted me access to the stories I had never known; strange entities termed webpages told me tales of all these musical marvels; some even had interviews. And in that strange dimension, I met Mr. Guy.
George Buddy Guy, born on a farm in rural Louisiana, whose father got him his first guitar at age twelve; a boy who learnt the chords of ‘Boogie Chillun’ from a drunk, praying the man wouldn’t pass out before he’d taught young Buddy the chords; an old man of 78 today, and with the recent passing of BB King, now anointed the last father of the blues. Strange, but for all the massive commercial success the British blues masters have achieved over the past half century, Buddy Guy could have been ten times as successful. Twenty times. Fifty. Yet he didn’t, and in his autobiography, you learn why. And somewhere in the depths of his ramblings – that is how the book is written, in a casual, conversational style – he lets you touch what Eckhart Tolle calls ‘the pain body’; that elusive, intangible aspect of a personality formed of pain, deprivation and terrible anguish, which you have to uncover, to uncover in turn the man. Buddy lets you touch his pain body without shame or lack of candor. But what you touch is the blues.
When he talks of color, you know he means pre-segregation America. When he talk of cats, you know it’s Chicago-speak for ‘persons’; when he talks of pints, it is slang for ‘a peg’ of hard alcohol; when he talks of licks, he means the frenetic sequence of notes the great bluesmen play, which he himself played louder, faster and better than anyone else. And when he talks of driving a dumpster to make ends meet, as late as the mid 80’s, when he had already fathered five children with two women, you know he means the blues. As he says, “You play, ‘cos you got the blues; and when you play the blues, you don’t got them no more’.
But past pain, he has wit too, in spades, regaling the reader with anecdotes of the great blues legends, and the tough life of making it as a musician in the black-dominated South Side of Chicago. He was a youngster in his early twenties, when the owner of the club he played at, hollered to him during a break: “Someone here to see you. Get out back and get Mud”. Guy was mortified. He wouldn’t go. No, he said, he didn’t want to get mugged. The owner repeated his instruction. Guy became apoplectic – “You crazy or sumtin’? Why you wanna get me mugged?” Eventually, after great cajoling, Guy went out back, where a large, fancy limo stood. In it was his intended assailant, the Mud – short for Muddy Waters – come to see young Guy play, and offer him the hand of friendship!
And of his music? That in fact, is the story. When Buddy found his voice in the 50’s they didn’t want it – he was too loud, too wild, they said. When the world was ready for his voice in the 60’s, he had adjusted and gone cold – too folksy, too Delta, they said, with painfully unintended irony. When he changed once more changed in the 70’s, the world had too– to disco. Leaving him in the unappealing limbo of oblivion, under the weight of 80’s pop. It is only in the 90’s when the other greats matured, when they returned to their roots so to speak, that he became first the great collaborator, seconding for Eric Clapton – a lifelong friend, jamming with BB King, and rediscovering his own genius in the company of Carlos Santana; and then cutting a series of marvelous discs. That is when Guy’s pain body finally found thankful dissipation. He has not looked back since. And the world is a better place for that fortuitous turn of events.
As books go, this is no literary marvel. But that is not the point of Buddy Guy’s autobiography; it is meant to be read as a record of how the blues grew out of the working class clubs of Chicago; of how difficult it was in those days for a black man to ‘crossover’ into the mainstream; of how the electric note changed the face of world music, uniting disparate societies; and how an unassuming man of immeasurable talent, waited patiently for fortune to show him her face. As he says in the end, wrapping the strange vicissitudes of fate, and the tribulations of a racially subjugated community into a delectable note, “the blues ain’t black or white – they’re just blue”.