Back before music became a fashion accessory as disposable as last week’s handbag, it formed the soundtrack to our lives. Everything was filled with music; ideas, aspirations, dreams; every facet of our lives was informed and enlightened by the music we listened to. Fashion suited the music back in those days, not vice-versa. There was no such thing as a guilty pleasure. Songs became pins in the map of our lives. It moved around us and inside us and still is the one true religion. Our Gods live and breathe. Our Gods bleed, laugh and cry. Our Gods treat us only with love because we didn’t care about their private personas or personalities. Everything we needed to know about them was in their music. They were superheroes whose alter-ego was unknown to us and didn’t particularly interest us. Our Gods are mortal but their creations are eternal.
We are reminded of their mortality when we lose one of them. Today I learned of the death of B.B King and, while his death was not tragic, before time or caused by anything scandalous, the loss is no less keenly felt. The world today seems to be a lot emptier for his passing. Here was a man who, up until very recently, was touring more than any of his younger counterparts and he was 89. He was the first true electric bluesman and I can’t help wondering if his passing is more significant in that it heralds the end of the Blues.
Yes there are many blues artists out there but B.B was the genuine article. I grew up listening to blues music. My most constant companions were Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie and Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker and B.B King. I later got into more contemporary stuff but my love of music began with the blues.
When guitar solos became anathema, blues music was excluded from this rule because there are no guitar solos in real blues. There is merely the pouring of emotions through an instrument. For me, it had to be guitar. A blues player’s guitar was never concerned with notes. It didn’t issue a sequence of notes. It cried, it laughed, it screamed, it sang and it sometimes roared but it was never overly technical because sadness and hardship isn’t.
B.B King was not a trust-fund baby. He was not born into vast wealth. He was not the subject of glossy photographs for teenagers to drool and swoon over. He was a bluesman. Blues Boy King. He embodied everything about the blues. His vocal was always tortured but was somehow exultant and glorious in spite of itself.
We have many artists who play the blues but few who understand and nevertheless ignore the theory of music. Derek Trucks is an exception to that and the rest are hugely talented but it isn’t essentially the blues that was born of a necessity to ease pain and genuine suffering. B.B King did not really play chords. He was not the most technically proficient musician in the history of guitar playing but he didn’t need to be because his heart bled through his beloved Lucille. I’m sure that, should you ever ask the great blues players of the modern era like, John Mayer, Eric Clapton or Robben Ford, they would undoubtedly point to King as a major influence.
Blues as it should be is now only archival. That is not designed to be an insult to anyone. It’s just a fact. We are lucky. We can listen to the greats and still look at them as our Gods. They may have been singing about their baby leaving them or about the sky crying but they were really screaming, “LET ME OUT”. That’s at least what I got from it. Blues music that was hewn from the fabric of slavery, racism, poverty, loss and love will never spawn a new creation. It’s sad.
Music isn’t dead because it can never die. The industry may have eaten itself and there are no more riches to be gained from it but what real musician ever really became a musician for the money?
Sleep well Mr King and thanks for contributing to the soundtrack of my life.